This was my first Ibajay Ati-Ati in over twenty years, a triumphant return to my birthplace. A return that gave me so much insight on my roots, family ties, and the insatiable desire to always be the last man dancing. It was an ear-splitting, booty-shaking, lechon-feasting fiesta that only Filipinos could fathom.
A town of 50,000 people come together for some ground-quaking stomping that makes it feel like a city of millions. Each barangay and clan musters their soldiers to take to the streets, some with flamboyant floats, dazzling costumes, and choreographed performances. Others with their small circle of family members, adorned in matching t-shirts and charcoal streaked across their face. However extravagant or cozy your ensembles, each clan has one thing in common. They are ready to party.
Ibajaynons of all generations come together to celebrate this one-of-a-kind annual festival. For the vast majority of the world, even the faintest idea of this festival has never once crossed their mind. The happenings in this tiny corner of the world go largely under the radar as far as international tourism goes, something that might actually be a blessing in keeping Ati-Ati as close to its original roots as possible. Seriously though, imagine all of the pre-manufactured outrage if this much blackface was involved in anything in a Western country.
I only managed to spot a half-dozen foreigners mixed in with the raucous crowd at Ibajay. The thing that made them stand out wasn’t their pale skin but their puzzled looks and resistance to the rhythm. Ati-Ati isn’t just something you watch. It’s something you become a part of.
Whether you’re an 80 year-old attending your 80th Ati-Ati or a 3 year-old dancing inside a coconut float, as long as Filipino blood flows through your veins, you are moving.
You could be stomping, you could be swaying, but no matter what, you are pushing forward. As long as the drums behind you keep beating, so too, must your feet.
The people of Ibajay go all-out for this one week and seemingly just chill the entire rest of the year. I completed my hazy trek home at around 4 AM, anxiously anticipating how awful I would feel for the big final day coming up. Waking up on Sunday morning after yet another unexpectedly wild night out should have been a task.
But as soon as those drums started beating, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. Our matching blue shirts emblazoned with our insignia and our crest were brought out as dozens and dozens of people started arriving at our house.
The drummers assembled on our front lawn. The charcoal was prepared inside coconuts and all of a sudden, we were going to war. With a drum band behind you, a uniform bearing your roots, and war paint applied as if we were guerrilla in the jungle, this felt like war. Our flag stood high on a bamboo pole as we marched through the streets of Ibajay. Breakfast came in the form of the four San Miguels that I downed to counter the sizzling Philippine heat that did nothing to slow the momentum of over 50,000 Filipinos who came to party.
From there, the day only escalated. A couple hours for an utter feast of lunch was the only break we got before re-assembling at 3 PM for the final battle.
On the outside looking in, you might see a bunch of people in matching shirts just trudging forward. As someone born in Ibajay but as far-removed from my roots as possible, it could have gone a number of ways. I could have done what I did at Kalibo Ati-Atihan, be simply an outsider taking photos as all these people seemed to have a lot more fun than me. Or, I could’ve gotten utterly lost in the proverbial sauce and wiggled my way to the promised land. I wholeheartedly chose the latter.
Ati-Ati is more than just a reason to party, though. It is a celebration that exemplifies everything that made us who we are. It is about the pride in you, those who came before you, and representing those generations as you whirlwind through the streets. And, it is also about dancing your face off as you shamelessly vibe to whatever rhythms the percussionists behind, in front, and in every direction decide to play. Whether it is the Carpenters, Camila Cabello, or some aggressive drum call to battle, combinations that make very little sense but that you’re just going to have to accept. Despite wielding my camera for the entirety of every parade, I had absolutely no desire to take any pictures. If it weren’t for the rare lulls in the parade when I remembered I even had it, it would have just been dead weight for 12 hours.
As the sun descended and the sky started dimming, one would assume the party would slow down. It did the exact opposite. The occasional streetlamp served as the only lights as we followed silhouettes and drumbeats blindly through the waning hours of the festival. I was growing weary, finally discovering where that insatiable desire to be the last man dancing came from.
In most places that I travel to across the world, I tend to be the last man dancing until my feet can physically no longer carry me. In the Philippines, I was just another figure two-stepping in the crowd. There was something special about coming back here. I was home.
Those were some of the most genuine cheeses I’ve mustered in the past few months. Ati-Ati, let’s hope you become a yearly adventure of mine. Viva.
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